Back to the Mothership
Ask a winemaker what his/her favorite wine is and, with humor, the return may well be “A beer!”
A good answer indeed. After spending a full day barrel-tasting in a hot and dusty vineyard or on a winery floor, few things clear the palate better or go down easier than a fresh, cold beer. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised on a recent trip to Sonoma County by both the number and the quality of breweries in wine country.
Petaluma is home to the Lagunitas Brewing Company, Healdsburg has Bear Republic Brewery, maker of the marvelous Racer 5. Santa Rosa hosts the Russian River Brewing Company and an exciting new brew pub called Hop Monk (get it?) that is Gordon Biersch founder Dean Biersch’s latest venture.
Despite those options, I found myself drinking a Colorado beer on this California sojourn. The Mothership Wit, brewed by Colorado’s own New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, was being poured in all of the best places. While the regular appearance of a Colorado brew in California Beer Country surprised me even more than the propensity of great local beers, I nonetheless quaffed the cloudy, crisp Wit whenever I came across it on tap.
Then on my final night in Sonoma while having dinner with friends, I began to wax poetic about the Colorado wheat beer.
“What is a wheat beer?” my dinner companion interrupted.
“Well, it has wheat in it,” I stammered, “and it’s light in color and, and…”
It was then I realized that I knew far too little about the concoction I enjoyed so much. So here is the scoop.
Mothership Wit is a Belgian-style “white” beer brewed organically (i.e., using organic ingredients) in New Belgium’s wind-powered brewery in Fort Collins. Released in 2007, it is the company’s first organic brew; their eventual goal is to brew all their products organically, provided they can find the needed ingredients from certified organic producers. New Belgium also brews a beer called “Sunshine Wheat” that uses different hops and is filtered.
Wheat beers have origins in Germany and Belgium that date back to the 1400s. Basically, the process calls for using wheat mixed with malted barley. In Germany, these beers are called “weizen”(VIE-sen) or “weisse” beers and in Belgium the term is “witbeer” (VIT-beer). German wheat beer by law must contain at least 51 percent wheat to malted barley. In Belgium there are no such standards and the range can vary from 30-60 percent wheat.
The Belgian style of wheat beer that New Belgium Brewing uses for Mothership Wit calls for coriander and orange peel to add spice and flavor. Unfiltered, the beer is light, straw-colored and generally cloudy in the glass. It is frequently served with an orange peel on the glass.
This style was nearly lost in the mid-1950s when virtually all brewing of Belgian witbeer ceased. But in the early ’90s, a Belgian brewer named Pierre Celis revived the style as a home brew. He was so successful that the beer became a business and he eventually moved to Austin, Texas, built a brewery and began selling his beer as Celis White.
Celis White was very successful and the craft-brewing division of Miller Brewing came calling. They bought the brand in 2000 and closed it a few short months later. All of the equipment was sold to the Michigan Brewing Company, which reinstated the brand and make it to this day, using the traditional method revived by Pierre Celis that dates back to the 1400s.
Today the style has regained popularity and a number of brewers are making variations on the theme, using different mixes of wheat and malted barley, and changing the spice ratios to taste.
New Belgium, maker of Fat Tire, is one of America’s most progressive companies when it comes environmental awareness. One percent of the company’s revenues go to environmental non-profits, the staff voted to commit to windpower and the organization is constantly searching for new ways to improve on-site efficiency. For that reason alone their beers are worth a try.
Beyond that, the Mothership Wit is a cool, refreshing brew that would clean the palate of any winemaker with a yen for coriander and spice.
Give it a try. You’ll find it in all the best places.
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